Home Articles A Visiting Fireman in Africa A Visiting Fireman in Africa. Chapter 4 - Page Six
A Visiting Fireman in Africa. Chapter 4 - Page Six Print E-mail
Written by Ray Critchell   
Sunday, 05 July 2009 23:37
Article Index
A Visiting Fireman in Africa. Chapter 4
Page Two
Page Three
Page Four
Page Five
Page Six
Page Seven
Page Eight
Page Nine
Page Ten
Page Eleven
Page Twelve
Page Thirteen
Page Fourteen
Page Fifteen
Page Sixteen
Page Seventeen
Page Eighteen
Page Nineteen
Page Twenty
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The final plan was for us to attract the attention of the British ships that would be off the coast at dawn the following day so that they would know where to find us. My sons and I unscrewed a door from a wardrobe, which had attached to it a full length mirror, and took it up on the roof ready to use as a heliograph in the morning. We 'borrowed' a car and positioned it so that we could signal to the ships in Morse code using the vehicle headlights and dipper switch. And as a backstop we made a pair of semaphore flags from a torn up table cloth and a pair of small table legs. We were gathered together on the first floor balcony, quietly discussing the arrangements with the others. It was quite dark as no one dared to show a light when, without warning and with appalling ferocity, someone down on the pavement just across the road opened fire on us at point blank range with a machine gun.

You will know the expression 'missed by a hairsbreadth'. Here it was for real. Not only could we hear the bullets as they whizzed past us but we could feel the tugging at clothing and our hair lightly brushed as the rounds were that close. Miraculously, no one was hit but the bullets were ricocheting off the walls and ceiling showering us all with small debris. We had all instinctively dropped to the floor and Marjorie, being the shortest, got there first with the rest of us on top.

For the second time in as many days, I found myself following some advice I was given many years ago. When I first went to sea, my boss, a Chief Yeoman of signals who had already been at sea for twice as many years as I had been anywhere, used to force feed us young sprogs with titbits of sound sailorly advice, one bit of which was that you won't find many atheists at a shipwreck, and for shipwreck read any life threatening event. Again, I found myself earnestly praying for the safety of my family.

That was a night to remember, and many values I used to hold were changed. When confronted with your own mortality in this way I found that many things I used to consider important no longer mattered, and the sudden realisation that we do not even have the right to draw our next breath put things into perspective. I could also visualise my old mum, many years ago taking me to task when I came home complaining about having had a bad day. 'Count your blessings son', she would say. "If you never have a bad one, how are you going to know the difference and be able to tell when you are having a good one?" She was a bit of an expert at getting me to shut up whenever I had a strop on.

And so another long and worrisome night passed. We were up at the crack of dawn and as soon as the sun started to rise up, my son and I went up on the hotel roof and waited with our big mirror. We soon saw ships on the horizon and hoped they were 'ours' and not 'theirs'. They were clearly warships as could be seen from their outlines. [Warships always have their mainmast behind the bridge superstructure, unlike merchant ships which carry them in front]. The mirror was too cumbersome to use to signal, and we weren't too sure about the angle of the sun but continuous flashing in the direction of the ships eventually brought a recognition signal. It was a relief to know that they were British ships, and that they could now pinpoint our location along the coast